There has always been a good deal of discussion (and no little disagreement) in the church concerning the Jews. Just what place do the Jews occupy in the history of redemption? What does the future hold for the Jewish people? Will there be a mass conversion of Jews at the end of the ages? These are just some of the questions debated and discussed in the church for years already. But in that discussion there is one question which dominates and that is this: what is the church’s calling with respect to the Jews? Ought the church direct a significant part of its missions work to the Jews? Some churches do. They have special missions to the Jews. It is our purpose in this and succeeding articles to examine the question of the “priority of the Jews” in the light of Scripture.
Among the plethora of books dealing with the principles of missions (many of these are of little value) is an excellent work by the late Dr. J. H. Bavinck, a Dutch missionary and professor of missions, An Introduction To The Science of Missions. On pages 69-74 Bavinck has this to say concerning the “Jewish question”:
Any discussion of missionary activity requires a threefold distinction between the work among the heathen and Mohammedans, among the Jews, and evangelization. The question of the mutual relation between these aspects can then be raised.
The Scriptures do not make a distinction in principle between missionary activity among the heathen and among the Jews. In
Jesus; instructed the apostles by saying “and that repentance and remission of sin should be preached in his name among all nations beginning at Jerusalem.” These bards indicate that Jerusalem has a preferred position at least with respect to temporal sequence. However, in
the privileged position of Jerusalem is no longer emphasized, for we now read that the apostles must be witness of Christ “both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
Missions to Israel and missions to the heathen are here simply mentioned in conjunction to each other
Other passages of Scripture also give the impression that since the rejection of Christ by official Israel, through the Sanhedrin and the leaders of the people, Israel has lost any special claim. Israel is now as anyone else: since it rejected the kingdom of God, the kingdom must be given to “a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.”
Among this new people there will also naturally be many Israelites, but they are not an elite with special privileges but are simply ordinary members of the church of Christ. It is noteworthy that in the missionary command of the Lord, reported in Matthew and Mark, mention is made of going “into the whole world” and of “making disciples of all people,” but in neither of these instances is Israel expressly named. Israel now simply belongs to the “world,” to “the nations.”
Nevertheless, the book of Acts gives sufficient recognition to the fact that Israel enjoyed a temporal priority, since Jerusalem was the point at which missionary activity was to begin. And as a matter of fact the history of missions did begin in Jerusalem. In fact if God had not adopted special measures to open the door to the outside world, missionary activity would have been in danger of also ending at Jerusalem. Paul was conscious of the priority of Israel in all his work. It was to the Jews of Antioch that Paul stated, “it was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing that ye put it from you and judge yourself unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles.
In the next verse Paul quotes from the Prophet Isaiah, “for so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldst be for salvation unto the ends of the earth.”
In connection with the first proclamation of the gospel the issue was as to how far the Jews, both in and outside the land of Israel, approved the official condemnation of Jesus by the Sanhedrin. If they disapproved and recognized Christ as the Redeemer then they belonged to Him, to the true Israel around whom God would build His church. Such was the manner in which God fulfilled His former promises to Israel.
A certain priority, in so far as temporal order was concerned, was assigned to missions to Israel in the first church. Israelites who believed in Christ, however, did not hold any special or privileged position within the church. It is of course, true that at the very beginning the church of Jerusalem exercised a certain supervisory capacity, and the conclusions that it reached through its elders and the apostles had a certain authority in the other churches. However, this authority subsequently disappeared of itself and the other churches assumed a position of equality.
The question as to whether or not a priority ought still to be assigned to Israel must in my judgment be answered negatively. The first missionary work began in Jerusalem, and outside of Jerusalem it first took place in the Synagogue. For it was then necessary that all Israel be confronted with the choice as to whether they would concur in the decision of the Sanhedrin. Such priority (which never involved a priority in, position but only in time) received its full recognition, however; in the first missionary activity. Missionary activity did begin in Jerusalem and in the Synagogue, but once the majority of the Jews assented to the decision of the authorities in Jerusalem and judged Jesus to be a false Messiah, they lost all preferential treatment. From then on Israel simply belonged to the nations, to the world to whom the gospel must be preached. It no longer had a special position, since the kingdom of God had been taken away from it.
The question remains as to whether or not there are still promises which are unfulfilled concerning the future of Israel. This problem has become urgent since the establishment of the state of Israel.
The Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel are of four-fold character.
The children of Israel who lived in the dispersion are repeatedly promised that they will return to Jerusalem. Isaiah writes, “Lift thine eyes round about and see: all they gather themselves together, they come to thee; thy sons shall come from far, and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side.”
ff Hostile heathenism will release the children of Israel and they will again gather together in Jerusalem.
The second type of promise refers to the genuine conversion of Israel. We have already referred to the well-known thirty-first chapter of Jeremiah and to the thirty-sixth chapter of Ezekiel. Numerous references are found in all the prophetic writings to the coming conversion and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The third type deals with the spontaneous coming up of the heathen to Mount Sion, attracted to the new glory of the reborn Israel.
And finally, the fourth promise refers to the mighty salvation that shall be displayed before
their lowered eyes.
Now it is evident that the first of these promises was fulfilled in principle when Israel returned from Babylon. It was spiritually fulfilled when many Jews who had been dispersed in Greece and Rome, and throughout the world, were converted to Jesus Christ and thus reunited to the people of God. This promise was not concerned with the city of Jerusalem, the local Jerusalem, but with the Jerusalem that refers to the great King, the great son of David. It is exceedingly difficult to answer the question as to whether or not there is an unfulfilled element in this promise which has now begun to be fulfilled in the formation of the state of Israel. But in any case a single element of this prophecy ought not to be isolated from the other three. For within the context of the prophecy, return from captivity and dispersion is intrinsically connected with genuine conversion and a new entrance into the salvation of the Lord. The return of countless Jews to the present day land of Israel contains many elements which remind us of ancient prophecies. Nevertheless it may be the case that in principle, from a spiritual point of view, this return is something completely different, something that is entirely outside of the horizon of the prophets. And yet it appears to me that it is possible that God may use this reunion of the people of Israel as a means to a new spiritual growth. For this reason missions to Israel and particularly in the land of Israel have a great importance, and we must reverently await what God may do.
The second Old Testament promise of the conversion of Israel is regarded by the New Testament as having been fulfilled by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the conversion of thousands of the children of Israel which followed. Peter refers with great boldness to the well-know words of Joel. The conversion of Israel foretold by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the prophets has been fulfilled. It has become a fact in Jesus Christ. It was not the entire people of Israel that were converted but those who came to conversion were indeed the Israel of God, the Israel that had received the promises which were “for them and for their children.”
The fulfillment of the fourth promise lies to a large measure outside the dimensions of world history. The glory and perfect peace that God shall give when the wolf shall lie down with the lamb can be tasted and foreshadowed here on earth to a degree, but its deepest reality cannot be realized until God “shall wipe away all tears from our eyes.”
It is thus extremely difficult to determine whether all the promises of God concerning Israel have already been fulfilled. One thing is certain, the New Testament proclaims that all these promises, including the fourth promise, have been fulfilled in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. They are therefore realized in principle; no single word of God is in vain. God has done what He said He will do. But the Bible itself teaches that some of the words of God receive more than one fulfillment, and from time to time God weaves the threads of history in an unsuspected way. Thus the above-named promises shall first receive their complete realization in the day when the majesty and glory of the people of God shall be brought within the new Jerusalem.
Is there then no single promise concerning Israel of which we can say with certainty that it remains to be fulfilled within the course of this world’s history? This question again brings us back to
and particularly to
of which we have already spoken. If we understand the “all Israel” in the second part of the text as referring to the natural descendants of Abraham; there is then reason to hold that the gathering of the gentiles will, again, quicken many Israelites to jealousy (as it did in the past), and bring them to repentance, “so that” the chosen of Israel will be converted. More than this we dare not say. It is therefore evident that in addition to missions to other nations, missions to Israel demand our full attention. Israel has no priority, no preference, but it must not be forgotten. It is indeed possible that God still has amazing plans for His people. It is possible that this is what Paul meant when he said: “have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world and the dishing of them the riches of the Gentiles, how much more their fullness.”
The only proper attitude for us is to wait, with reverence and humility, to see what God is going to do in this perplexing moment of world history.
We shall comment on this position of Bavinck in the next issue the Lord willing.